By Elias Hazou and Jonathan Shkurko

Trade unions representing workers at the Electricity Authority of Cyprus (EAC) on Thursday announced measures as of next week that could potentially lead to rolling power cuts, including over Christmas during periods of peak power usage, with the government in turn accusing the syndicates of misleading the public while hinting at strong action of its own.

And in a sign of how the government might handle the unions’ action, Energy Minister Natasa Pilides said that “potentially we are talking not about a strike per se, but rather insubordination, refusal to carry out their duties, in relation to the power station at Dhekelia.”

The industrial action by the EAC-affiliated syndicates begins on December 14. This will involve not operating the six steam turbines at the Dhekelia power station which generate a combined 360 megawatts.

Without the 360 megawatts, the maximum output of the EAC from all power plants comes down to about 670 megawatts – close to peak demand at this time of year.

And should any turbines at any other station go offline for whatever reason, or demand surges if the relatively mild weather so far turns cold, that would necessitate cutting power off to certain areas, explained a spokesman for the Transmission System Operator (TSO).

By way of comparison, on Christmas Day of 2021 and New Year’s Day of 2022, peak demand was 865 megawatts.

Over the past few days, the unions said they are “intensely frustrated and disappointed at the stance, conduct, and continuing inaction of the energy ministry on serious matters raised repeatedly and which have worsened over the past few years.”

The reasons behind the tough measures adopted by the unions are linked to chronic understaffing issues, as well as policies blocking the EAC from engaging in electricity generation through renewables, as well as allowing the continued operation of the power station at Dhekelia.

Regarding the power station in Dhekelia, the unions said its antiquated turbines should have been replaced with newer, more efficient ones – yielding a lower cost of production as well as lower emissions.

“Instead, the ministry of energy has unlawfully promoted an extension to their [i.e. the turbines] operation to the year 2029, without at the same time taking a decision to replace them, relying on flimsy, whimsical and definitely costly solutions.”

The recent development alarmed both the energy ministry and the Cyprus Energy Regulatory Authority (Cera). Officials of the two bodies were set to meet representatives of the EAC to address the issue and to find a way to bring the situation back to normality.

“The six turbines at the Dhekelia power station operate illegally and contribute to increasing costs of electricity. On top of that, by asking EAC workers to operate them, the government is taking advantage of the station’s staff,” a letter issued by the unions on Wednesday read.

“Therefore, we decided not to operate them and not participate in such illegal activity.”

Over the past few days, unions also asked the energy ministry to explain the reason behind the decision to prevent the EAC from installing renewables that would bring down electricity generation costs.

Other demands of the unions concern, among other things, the creation of hundreds of new jobs, the strengthening of the infrastructure at the Dhekelia power station and the exclusion of EAC employees from the new pension system in the wider public service.

In a scathing statement of its own, the energy ministry later in the day said it has repeatedly advised the EAC to optimise and automate its processes, but to no avail. Constantly hiring more staff is not the solution, it added.

Moreover, increasing the payroll at the EAC would inevitably result in higher electricity bills – to the detriment of consumers, which the trade unions claim to care about.

Appearing on a television news bulletin, Pilides said the unions were behaving irrationally and their arguments were not convincing.

“What sort of strategic planning is it, when two months before the elections you come and ask for 370 [additional] jobs, which corresponds to 20 per cent of staff at the EAC?”

Pilides said that during talks with the unions the government side was open to approving 146 positions.

On the issue of the Dhekelia power plant, the minister said the government has managed to get an exemption from the European Commission. Although the steam turbines are old and emit a great deal of carbon dioxide, Brussels is willing to grant Cyprus an extension on operating them.

This countered the unions’ contention that continued operation of these turbines is ‘illegal’.

“People are not stupid, they understand what the unions are after,” remarked Pilides, evidently alluding to the timing of the industrial action, coming just before the presidential elections.

“We will make efforts so that no power cuts occur. We are speaking with the EAC board, with the energy regulator, and with the office of the Presidency, in a bid to resolve the matter.”